Book Excerpt: ‘I See The Face’ by Shahidul Zahir

Book Title: I See The Face
Author: Shahidul Zahir
Translator: V. Ramaswamy
Publisher: Harper Perennial (HarperCollins India)

About the Book
Born in 1953 in Old Dhaka, Shahidul Zahir published only six works in his short life – but these are some of the most unique and powerful works of fiction to have come out of the subcontinent. With his own particular blend of surrealism, folklore, oral storytelling traditions, magic realism, a searing understanding of social and political reality, and rare clarity of vision, he created a truly extraordinary oeuvre. Shahidul Zahir’s work can be compared to the likes of JD Salinger and Marquez Gabriel.

I See The Face by Shahidul Zahir Book Cover
I See The Face by Shahidul Zahir Book Cover

I See the Face is an alternative telling of the story, or history, of Bangladesh, beginning with the War of Liberation in 1971. Spellbinding in its construction, the novel moves effortlessly from the past to the present, and back again, as Zahir paints a picture of the crisis of post-independence Bangladesh and describes how society and the state drive a poor but brilliant boy to destruction. There is biting wit and humor, and above all, a kind of ethereal understatement which make the reading experience an incomparable one. With I See the Face, Shahidul Zahir surpasses himself.

Below is an excerpt taken from the book:

… when Fakhrul Alam Ledu went to Mamun’s house looking for him, he didn’t find Mamun, so he then asked Mamun’s Ma, Mrs Zobeida Rahman, ‘Where’s Mamun gone? Where’s he gallivanting!’ Perhaps Mamun had gone to the residence of Mrs Mary J. Clark, the Anglo-Indian teacher of Silverdale Kindergarten School, or of Miss D’Costa – perhaps it was to Mrs Clark’s residence only, because it was she who loved and indulged her students, and so they knew her house too. Perhaps it was to her house that Mamun had gone, because her daughter, Julie Florence, who was like a talking Barbie doll, was there, perhaps Mamun hadn’t said anything to FakhrulAlamLedu, perhaps he regularly made secret visits to Mrs Clark’s home in the lane in Tikatuli where the Women’s Education Institute was located, perhaps he sat quietly with Julie in the hazy light of dusk, perhaps Julie Florence Clark gazed at the darkness outside while Mamun looked at the pictures hanging on the walls; or perhaps they talked, and looking at a picture on the wall, Mamun asked her, ‘Which mosque is this?’ And Julie Florence then laughed and said, ‘It’s not a mosque, it’s a church, it’s St Peter’s Basilica, the church of St Peter in the Vatican.’

Vatican kunjaygay? Where’s the Vatican?’

‘Why do you say kunjaygay? The Vatican is in Rome, in Italy.’

‘Where’s Italy?’

‘Italy is in Europe.’

‘Where’s Europe?’

Julie Florence thought that Mamun was joking with her, so she said, ‘I don’t know where it is.’

‘Wherever it might be, do you feel like going to Europe?’

‘I do, yes, I would like to go, but my Mom is trying to go to Australia.’

Mamun Miya then silently gazed at the pictures again; he recalled that on the day he first came all by himself to Mrs Clark’s house, he wanted to flirt a bit with Anglo-Indian girls, after all this was a Muslim country, it didn’t really matter if one did a bit of all that here with them, and so that day when he saw Julie wearing a dotted sleeveless frock with a floral pattern, he felt breathless as he observed Julie’s budding breasts, exposed arms, knees and legs, and the small crucifix on the thin sterling silver chain around her neck. He thought that Julie Florence wasn’t human, she was a fairy, and she would fly away that very instant to Rome or to Australia, he felt a great desire to put his arms around Julie Florence and give her a kiss; he said, ‘You’re great, Julie,’ but the girl was very shrewd, she sat beside the door, far away from Mamun, on a cane-bottomed chair, she didn’t sit close to him, she pretended not to understand what he was saying as well because she knew such talk was like a trapdoor and that as soon as you went through it you were done for. Mamun Miya then said to her, ‘Tumi awto doore boshe thako kyala? Kachhe aisha bosho! Why do you sit so far away? Come and sit near me!’

But although Julie Florence was fourteen years old, the feminine entity within her made her as alert as a doe in the realm of a tiger, so she asked him, ‘Apne kyala bolen kaeno? Why do you say kyala for why?’

It occurred to Mamun that perhaps Julie was fooling around a bit with him, he liked this banter; he said, ‘Kyala komuna kyala? Why shouldn’t I say kyala?’

‘Say kaeno. Not kyala. Say kaeno bol bo na.’

‘All right, I’ll say kaeno. But why do you people want to go away to Australia?’

Julie Florence didn’t really have a clear idea, it was her mother, Mrs Mary Joyce Clark who wanted to go. Her father, Robert Francis Clark, and her brother, Joseph Eugene, too wanted to go. But why did they want to go?

‘Why do you want to leave the country and go away? Kyala?

Julie Florence thought she didn’t know the answer, or maybe she did; perhaps there was nothing for them to do in this country; her father, Bob, was the garden supervisor at the British Council, he managed the gardeners in the grounds, planted grass, had it mowed, he had the gardeners cultivate flowers according to the season, and then returning home to the lane where the Women’s Education Institute was located, he told stories about all this ludicrous work of his to his wife and children, about chrysanthemum seeds that were to be brought from Holland this monsoon, about a famous story by John Steinbeck about this flower, and he lamented, ‘If only tulips could be made to bloom in this country!’ Perhaps the girl Julie listened to his stories with interest, and although she was young in years, she was concerned about her father, about how the man was trying to protect himself from the feeling that his life was useless, perhaps it occurred to her that, in truth, if tulips could grow in this country then her father would definitely have made tulips bloom in the garden of the British Council on Fuller Road, and perhaps then Steve, Mr Steven H. Arnold, the Director of the British Council in Dhaka, would see the flowers one day and stop, extend two fingers and touch a bud and say, ‘Hey, Bob, how fabulous, I see you’ve grown yellow tulips from Amsterdam here! Bravo!’

Perhaps Robert Clark would then smile and reply, ‘It’s nothing great, sir, if only there was some more dew, you’d see the kind of tulips I could have grown in this very country!’

But that wasn’t to be; here, in this country, there were only cosmos and dahlia, and there were yellow marigolds, of course, there was kolaboti too; Robert said that when Steven had newly arrived in Dhaka after his transfer from Nairobi, he grew very fond of the white kolaboti flowers of the rainy season. But how long could a person like the same thing? If only there was a bit more dew in this country, if only the winter was a bit longer and colder, then perhaps Robert Francis Clark’s life would have been different; Julie Florence felt sad for him, but Joseph couldn’t bear to hear his father, he’d say, ‘Why do you talk such rubbish, what difference does it make to a gardener, nothing, kuchh nahi, you’re a useless man, Dad, take it easy and enjoy your futility!’

The excerpt is taken from the Introduction of the book, “I See The Face” and with permission from HarperCollins India and the translator V. Ramaswamy.

Follow us on Google News

Storizen Magazine March 2023 Cover - Anuja Chandramouli
Storizen Magazine March 2023 Cover – Anuja Chandramouli

Read more book excerpts and book reviews in our March 2023 Issue featuring Anuja Chandramouli